The tagline for Combs & Co. – the brokerage firm Susan L. Combs started nine years ago, when she was just 26 – is “If you don’t know insurance, know your broker.” It’s a perfect summary of the attitude Combs brings to the table.
“We have a real tell-it-like-it-is approach, with a little bit of swagger,” Combs explains.
It’s been a big year so far for Combs, further evidence her star is on the rise: She won a 2014 NUL Industry Elite Award, and she’s the youngest person to set up an endowment fund at the University of Missouri.
That’s because Combs is good at what she does – really good. And she can’t be shy about it. She’s got a business to run, after all.
One of the qualities that sets Combs & Co. apart is the attention that Combs devotes to client service. “Everyone who works for us has a background in hospitality, and we treat insurance as such,” she says. “People want to work with us because they know we’ll go to bat for them. A lot of people forget that insurance is a service industry. On the health side, we meet with all our clients, and they know they can come to us and ask deeply personal questions about their health care that they might not feel comfortable asking anybody else. And we make sure we have a quick response time.”
Combs adds that many of her business partners have also worked in the service industry -- and that she also tends to gravitate toward colleagues who play sports. “If you’re going to be working with somebody in sales, you want them to have that competitive nature,” she notes.
Competitive to Combs, though, doesn’t mean taking on every client. That might seem counterintuitive to the hospitality message Combs cultivates, but it’s not.
“When you start your business, you feel like you need to take everyone who comes in the door,” she notes, “and you don’t. This is a service business, so you have to manage their expectations but also meet yours. There has to be a fit so you don’t cringe every time you see their caller ID on your phone. And you want your client to be happy with your work. I think that for anybody who starts their own business, if you can make the transition quickly to realizing that both you and your client have a choice, you’ll be so much more successful.”
And in addition to attention to customer service and accountability to her clients, Combs is also one of only seven brokers in the New York tri-state area who’s PPACA certified.
“That’s opened a ton of doors,” she says. “We’re offering auditing and liability reports; we’re actually working with other brokers and coming in as consultants.”
Starting her own firm wasn’t necessarily something that Combs planned to do in her mid-20s.
“I was working for another large brokerage firm with a focus in entertainment,” she remembers. “I was a contractor and special advisor for them, and I had a contract with them for a year. At the end of the year, they presented me with a management trainee program. I would shadow all these different positions -- but they were very vague on the money. They said, ‘You’re just going to have to trust us,’ and I was like, ‘Well, trust doesn’t pay my rent or my car payment.’”
So she crunched some numbers to figure out her next step.
“I was splitting all commissions with the firm, but I owned my book. So if I went out on my own, all my clients could follow me. I had a mentor who really pushed me and asked me, ‘What are they really doing for you?’ I said, ‘You know, they mail stuff for me when I need things mailed.’ And he was like, ‘Susan, get off your butt and go mail your own stuff!’
“It was very scary,” she acknowledges. “I was doing all the administrative work and the sales on top of it. But he pushed me and gave me the confidence I could do it. He was a general agent and said he would give me any back support I needed. And my wonderful husband is also a business owner, and he said, ‘You can do this,’ too. So that’s what I did, and I just had my nine-year anniversary in June.”
Combs & Co. is thriving, but she’s worked hard to get to this point and learned a lot in the interim.
“When you start a business, your successes and failures are yours at the end of the day,” she says, “and there are a lot of things you don’t know that you don’t know. You might think you’re prepared, but there’s always something that comes up.
“I was working out of my home when I started,” she continues, “and I didn’t think about the loneliness factor. If you’re working out of your house, you don’t have anybody to interact with. You’re talking to people on the phone, but you don’t have that colleague interaction that you had before. So within a couple of years, I got office space, because I found that I fed off other people -- and that’s one thing that I just never thought about.”
And when you own your own company, the buck stops at you.
“Whether it’s technology or a client issue, you have to be prepared to have tough conversations,” Combs adds. “It seems like there’s always a fire to put out, and you will screw up. Nobody’s perfect. So you have to make sure you have good business insurance. And you have to be willing to say ‘I messed up’ to a client. But honesty usually wins the day -- that and fixing the problem.
“As long as you keep your clients happy, and you’re still adding clients every week like you’re supposed to, your revenue can’t help but go up,” she concludes.